Scandal in the West Virginia diocese: ‘there is no excuse’

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 07, 2019

Yesterday I wrote that Archbishop William Lori had done the Church a real service by providing a detailed account of the corruption that had been uncovered in the Diocese of Charleston/Wheeling, West Virginia, under former Bishop Michael Bransfield. It was, I wrote, the first time—at least certainly the first time that I can recall—that “a bishop has been removed from office, and Church leaders have given an honest and convincing explanation for the action.” Unfortunately, my compliment was misplaced.

It’s true that in his letter, Archbishop Lori provided many details (but not all; see below) about the profligate spending by Bishop Bransfield. But it’s also true that the archbishop’s revealing letter was released just minutes before an explosive news story appeared in the Washington Post. The Post had obtained a full copy of the investigative report on which Archbishop Lori’s letter was based. There is every reason to believe that the archbishop knew the Post story would appear soon.

So that letter from Archbishop Lori is, it seems, just one more example of a prelate confessing only what the media already know. Maybe someday there will be an example of a bishop revealing evidence of corruption within the Church before that evidence is in the hands of reporters. I’m still waiting.

In a follow-up video message released today, Archbishop Lori says that he only received clearance from the Vatican this week to reveal the details of the West Virginia investigation. The investigation was wrapped up early in March, and the Vatican authorized disclosure three months later, just as Post reporters were asking embarrassing questions. Maybe I’m cynical—my years on this beat have certainly encouraged cynicism—but I have trouble believing that the timing of Archbishop Lori’s letter was coincidental.

So, yes, the archbishop’s disclosure was a step forward in the long, frustrating campaign for episcopal accountability. But the credit for this last bit of progress, I’m afraid, should go to the Washington Post.

In his new video message Archbishop Lori also explains that he chose to delete the names of prelates who had received Bishop Bransfield’s cash gifts (including his own name) because he thought the listing of names would be a “distraction” and because there was no evidence that any of the recipients had used the funds inappropriately or provided Bransfield with any sort of quid pro quo. But the high-rolling bishop did not send off his gifts at random; there was a clear pattern to his largess. As the Post put it, “the recipients of the largest amounts were among the most influential members of the Catholic Church, clerics whose opinions carry weight with the Vatican.”

Maybe Bishop Bransfield only wanted to ensure that influential prelates remembered his name. Maybe he didn’t want them to do anything in particular in return. Or maybe, more ominously, he wanted them to do precisely nothing—that is, he wanted them not to look too carefully into his personal conduct.

The clerical grapevine usually conveys gossips very efficiently. If a bishop from a small diocese in West Virginia is making dozens of four and five-figure cash gifts to influential prelates, don’t other bishops hear about it? Or is the receipt of such large personal gifts so routine that it does not provoke comment? Either way, the danger of corruption is obvious.

In his video message Archbishop Lori concedes that “there is no excuse nor adequate explanation that will satisfy the troubling question of how Bishop Bransfield’s behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did.” There is no excuse, certainly. And no adequate explanation has yet been given. But there is a remedy: holding bishops accountable. And if our bishops will not enforce that remedy themselves—if there will be no full disclosure until the investigative reporters are posting their stories—then thank God for hostile media.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 11, 2019 7:07 PM ET USA

    A new Fox News article by Juliet Linderman et al about clergy sex abuse quotes Michigan's AG: "Some of the things I've seen in the files makes your blood boil, to be honest with you," Nessel said. "When you're investigating gangs or the Mafia, we would call some of this conduct a criminal enterprise." Some prosecutors are considering the application of racketeering laws. "Such a move... would mark the first known time that actions by diocese or leader were branded a criminal enterprise..."

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 09, 2019 1:50 PM ET USA

    Sadly, this bears a lot of resemblance to what happened in Boston in 2002: reveal nothing about the shameful truth until the news media dig it up and force the issue. The Catholic Church’s hard-won reputation as a moral influence has been lost through a few bad men who lived off the Church even as they betrayed it.

  • Posted by: SPM - Jun. 08, 2019 3:54 PM ET USA

    I would point out that the timing of the release was not entirely a coincidence. It was released at the end of the "mandatory attendance" retreat for the priests of the diocese. (Usually, the diocese offers two retreats during the year and the priest gets to pick which is more convenient.) Most were expecting the release of detailed information at that time. So the timing of the letter wasn't NECESSARILY related directly to the impending release of the Washington Post article.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Jun. 08, 2019 11:13 AM ET USA

    "there was no evidence that any of the recipients had used the funds inappropriately or provided Bransfield with any sort of quid pro quo." There is no evidence that Archbishop Lori investigated that. Taking gifts from Bransfield and then investigating him is a HUGE CONFLICT OF INTEREST. This is the best example of why Bishops cannot investigate other Bishops.

  • Posted by: ml_callanan5009 - Jun. 08, 2019 4:29 AM ET USA

    It is a sad day for the Church laity when we have to wait for The Washington Post to come out with a story about a bishop who is paying off his counterparts rather than hearing from someone who has authority over him. The sheep are surely left shepherdless in today's society. The lone shepherds are being attacked themselves. We, the laity, in many cases only have Our Lord, the Good Shepherd to protect and defend us.